BY MID-NOVEMBER, the internet is always creaking at the seams with all the best of lists for that particular year, including albums. And so it was for 2013. There are several problems with this scenario. For one, it gives the false impression that making and releasing recorded music is a kind of competitive sport, and that’s hardly true of those for whom creativity, craft, imagination and the art of audio illusion are foremost in their minds. More pertinently, it means that records that hit the racks late in the year get lost in the lolly scramble, and those that came out really early in the year will probably already be forgotten, or assumed to have been late laggers from the previous year.
I’m sure you’ll all agree, that’s a sad state of affairs. So for my inaugural column, I’m going to take a long, loving gaze at a few releases that deserved more kudos than they got. Several of them are historic releases reissued, for which I’m unapologetic and unrepentant. While the latest, greatest musical phenomenons deserve their days in the sun, as the history of recorded music lengthens, it’s more important than ever to understand it, reflect on those back pages, and sometimes, to give yourself the opportunity to revise your opinion. (Here’s a secret: critics are sometimes wrong, and I have even been known to change my mind about a release when I reassess it years later).
The progressive rock era has been much maligned, especially by the critical fraternity, for decades. Happily, of late a new generation has come to realise that prog (as we shall heretofore call it) isn’t the enemy, and that its exponents actually had a lot of great musical ideas up their muslin sleeves. It seems incredible, but around the turn of the decade (1970, that is!), the improbably named Jethro Tull were on a level with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in terms of popularity, and they were considered one of the key bands of their era.
Along with King Crimson, the group pioneered the use of both acoustic and electric elements at a time when studio technology was still grappling with the best way of recording heavy rock, let alone a combination of hammering riffs and ornate acoustic guitar picking and flute. It’s a bit of a myth that there was a stereotypical prog sound, and Jethro Tull were intensely individualistic, with Ian Anderson’s often densely layered lyrics and the group’s labyrinthine arrangements making for songs that took more than a few times to get the gist of, but paid off handsomely in the long run.
Their third album, 1970’s Benefit (Chrysalis) has received a really respectful reissue that frankly, puts most others to shame. It’s a three-disc affair, the first consisting of the original album remixed (with extra tracks), the second various related odds and sods for the hardcore fan, and the third an audio DVD with a welter of material, including the remixes in DTS and Dolby AC3 5.1 Surround, and stereo 96/24 LPCM.
The booklet is great, too, with extended liner notes, and a track-by-track discussion with band members, who more often than not disagree about the merits of particular songs, and even who did what.
I don’t have a surround system at the present time, but even on CD, the stereo remix of the album sounds spectacular. The album was recorded on a mere 8-tracks (their breakthrough recording Aqualung came next, and got the – ahem! – benefit of a full 16-track studio), but Steven Wilson’s careful mix has brought out the very best elements of the sound, naturalising what was apparently an artificial-sounding stereo pan and giving it a terrific sound stage. I’m usually suspect of remixing of any kind, but Wilson (who has his own Pink Floyd-styled group, Porcupine Tree) hasn’t altered much, just cleaned up various glitches found on the original multi-track tapes, and given each instrument a sense of clarity it won’t have had when blasting from Dad’s barely stereophonic late ‘60s mahogany radiogram.
Bottom line: Jethro Tull is not a man’s name. You heard it here first. Respectful remix/remaster/reissue of seminal progressive rock record.
Another handsome reissue is Scott Walker’s The Collection 1967-1970 (Universal), which brings together the enigmatic singer’s first five solo albums after he left that teen-scream boy band, The Walker Brothers. Walker’s music must have sounded totally out of place during the psychedelic era, and even today, it doesn’t quite fit anywhere, stylistically. He had a lovely big mellow crooning voice that was a bit like a Frank Sinatra or a Tony Bennett but without any Las Vegas schmaltz or garishness, and his songs were uniquely introspective and sometimes, just plain odd.
The discs are packaged in LP replica cardboard, and there’s a decent booklet and a nice, sturdy box to fling them all in, but nowhere does it say anything about when or whether the albums have ever been remastered, a trend that is perplexing for those of us still willing to throw good money at discs if we can establish their audio provenance, or if we know they’re going to sound their best. Just as annoying is the fact that the song titles and other info on the CD covers are so small they’re illegible. Sure, you can see the whole list in the back of the booklet, but that’s a pain.
Recorded in old-fashioned British studios with the best session musicians, and more or less live apart from the vocals, I’m sure that the original vinyl will have benefited from a gorgeous resonant analogue sound. Sadly, on CD it can sound a little harsh, especially on the two earliest albums. By Scott 4, his most consistently satisfying and magical album, everything is sounding more lustrous and fat, and it’s worth pumping up the volume just to get the full effect of those gorgeous orchestrations, and that unequalled croon.
Bottom line: Former teen scream and remodeled existential crooner, Scott Walker, gets five late ‘60s albums boxed to better enable the understanding of his velvety brilliance.
Another contemporary of Walker’s with a totally different style is Roy Harper, whose Man & Myth (Bella Union) is his first release in 13 years, and his most lavish production since the late ‘70s. Some might recognise the name from a song on Led Zeppelin’s III album, ‘Hats Off To (Roy) Harper’, or his voice from Pink Floyd’s ‘Have A Cigar’. A British folk-rock artist whose work could be compared to that of Nick Drake or John Martyn, Harper’s lengthy discography is utterly unique: on his most daring albums, he combines startling acoustic fingerpicking with lovely orchestrations, and long-form ruminations on subjects that few other songwriters dare. Having suffered at the hands of his religious zealot stepmother as a child, Harper is vehemently anti-religion, but his music displays a rare sense of humanity, and I would have no hesitation in calling him a poet-philosopher, and an important artist who has been sadly neglected, despite having fans and collaborators like Jimmy Page, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and Kate Bush.
In fact, Man & Myth is the roundabout result of the career resurrection that took place when trendy American singer-songwriter Joanna Newsome acknowledged him as a major influence, and took him on tour in 2011.
While not as potent lyrically or musically as his key works, it’s clear that Harper isn’t yet in his dotage, and it’s gratifying to hear a 72-year-old who is still angry, and dealing with getting old, unlike so many rock and roll bands who embarrass themselves by still acting like adolescents. The lyrics explore the fact of aging in a no-compromise fashion, and ‘The Stranger’ in particular, speaks of the “old ghost” Harper sees when he looks in the mirror. The music, meanwhile, features judicious instrumentation that perfectly matches the less than jubilant tone, including a small string section, bouzouki, oud and mandola.
Because there’s no harshness anywhere in the sound spectrum, I’m tempted to suggest that some kind of noise reduction has been used, but I think it’s more likely that this predominantly acoustic album has been recorded sans the now very common compression.
Bottom line: Led Zep and Pink Floyd thought he was ace. The infamous “stoned freak poet” of British folk-rock, Roy Harper, returns with his first album in 13 years.
Next month: some modern music. I promise.